Patrick Mercer: Why must his unit be buried with my brave friend?

The Worcestershire & Sherwood Foresters cease to exist today. Yet they must fight on in Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

In July, I buried a friend. We served together in Ulster and Bosnia before he fell to a Taliban mortar round. As the firing party waited to volley over his coffin, the padre summed him up: his rise from private to captain, his military virtues and his love of his family, his football team and the regiment to which he had dedicated his life. It's ironic, then, that yesterday his regiment, whilst still trading blows in Helmand, ceased to exist. Mandarins did what Frenchmen, Americans, Russians, the Keiser, Hitler, and yesterday's and today's Afghans had failed to do and the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters were swept away to re-emerge as something called 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment. My friend's gravestone will be the last one to bear our proud cap badge.

Another coincidence: yesterday, in 1880, a grateful nation awarded a special medal to mark the savage fighting that led to the relief of Kandahar, a town that's now a household name again. Today, a similar gong has to be the subject of endless media campaigns, pressure in Parliament and ceaseless public goading.

While regiment names and scrap metal may not be the fulcrum of our foreign policy, Britain must remember the special relationship with her own defenders. They will fight as no other warriors can so long as they, their cherished – perhaps arcane – institutions, and their loved ones, are supported and respected by the people who put them in harm's way.

In khaki anorak circles, the term "overstretch" is overused. Put simply, it means that there are not enough soldiers to do the job and, as war is being waged on two fronts, the need for manpower hasn't been so critical since Korea. But, wait; isn't this an army that recently shed four of its fighting battalions and allowed the Navy to shrink to its 1830s level? It may sound like a bean-counter's argument, but being under strength saps efficiency and erodes morale.

Few RAF and Army units that deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan are now fully manned. Scandalously, one battalion went to Iraq last year with only 60 per cent of its manpower and, although it may once have been able to borrow men from another unit or used TA soldiers, the well has now run dry. Units that would have lent men to make up the "bayonet strength" in the past are now themselves struggling to prepare for operational tour or attempting to get some time between deployment for career courses, specialist training or, simply, some rest and time with the families.

Part of the reason that numbers are low, of course, is the pressure that overstretch puts on those families. Morale in the field seemed undented to me, but wives and kids have to endure isolated garrisons, dodgy housing, and over-filled schools and surgeries. It has an understandably depressing effect on men who have too little time at home to be proper husbands. And it's the married men, of course, who are a unit's backbone. If they leave to spend a bit more time with the wife their military experience is not quickly replaced.

Similarly, I remember my dad talking about battle-shock in Anzio, but I hadn't expected to see it as starkly as I did in Afghanistan recently. Every airman, marine and soldier I met in the combat zone had seen serious fighting, wounds and death. The senior NCOs told me that although a few shied away, the rest met danger stoically, killing without relish and just being glad to see the next dawn. This was brutally clear from The Royal Anglian Regiment which has now had more than 80 killed and wounded with no proper system to replace the casualties.

We must not ask too much of these youngsters. The burden of battle must be balanced with time to rest and – as the medics put it – " decompress". General Sir Mike Jackson makes exactly the right point about the unwritten covenant between soldiers and the nation, but this poses the extraordinary question of why, on his watch, the army's numbers have plummeted to such an alarming level? Under his hand, just more than two years ago, some infantry officers who were fighting in Iraq were being made forcibly redundant. Yet weeks ago the new Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, is said to have asked for 3,000 more fighting men (note, not logisticians or support troops) to be raised. What sort of planning leads to miscalculation like this?

Then there's the too-familiar story of kit and vehicles. Glance at Punch and you'll see that Tommy had no coat to keep out the Crimean storms, and that his shoddily made bayonet bent on Burmese ribs. Soldiers will always moan about perceived shortages but to be known as "the borrowers" by US forces in the Gulf and still not to have the right type or numbers of armoured vehicles and helicopters beggars belief. General Dannatt tells us we must ready for decades of instability and violence. If that is the case, our forces must be resourced and geared for it and military planners must confront the purse-holders with unpalatable truths.

Kipling's "gentlemen in khaki" were always a drain in peacetime but heroes in battle. In the past, there has been an empathy with our forces that required no written covenant; there was a silent understanding that bins would be cleared, strikes covered and wars fought with a resigned grin. We see plenty of our forces in the media, but how many people actually know one of the lads who faces the dirty, deadly, daily reality of war? How many of our politicians who commit men to these situations have ever worn a uniform?

Surely, now is the time for a clearly spelt out covenant on what our forces can expect from their government. Whether you agree with our present brace of wars or not, we must remember the crop of maimed and gouged youngsters that they have sown. These men and women must be properly compensated, not left waiting to know whether they have a secure future.

Sadly, there will be plenty more casualties among those who serve and protect us. So, let us treat them and their families with the respect and generosity that they are owed.

Patrick Mercer MP is a former Tory security spokesman

Further reading: 'Soldier' by General Sir Mike Jackson is published by Bantam Press on 10 September

To send a message of support to our soldiers visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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